Part VII: Managing Anger and Reactivity
Are you or your partner quick to anger? Are small comments or questions met with disproportionate defensiveness? Do small disagreements turn into major fights? In an environment of high emotional reactivity, couples are not going to make themselves vulnerable, take emotional risks – or get closer. Instead, such an environment promotes the building up of walls, defensiveness, and resentment – the opposite of what you need to develop intimacy.
I have worked with some couples who readily absorbed the concepts and techniques of effective couples communication that I offered them. But they would go home, activate each others’ emotional reactivity, and have enormous blow-out fights. Needless to say, at those moments they did not use the communication skills they had learned.
After a few sessions of this, I finally realized we needed to work on not escalating. What I did with them was some basic anger management. We did not drill deeply into the roots of their angry feelings, we did not devote very much time to exploring their individual past histories with angry communication, and we did not spend too much time having them talk back and forth about their anger.
Instead, we just had them learn to control it, the way they do in every other aspect of their lives. After that, they were able to do a much better job of managing their reactivity, so they could start to communicate in a mature and constructive way. At that point, they could begin to really benefit from the couples work we were doing.
So, some tips on how not to escalate:
Recognize that you may not be able to get immediate resolution to whatever is bothering you at that moment. Your choices are to sit with the discomfort, or lash out and have a pointless fight that resolves nothing, but pushes you farther away from each other. Recognize that those are your only two choices and choose accordingly.
Then, acknowledge to yourself that you are angry, and that you do not want the negative consequences of expressing it inappropriately. Count to ten. Take a break from the situation. Walk around the block. There is a strong physical component to emotional states. Getting the feelings out physically can be very helpful. I advised a client to walk around the block when he gets angry at his wife. He came back the next week and said, “I did what you said, when I got angry at my wife, I walked around the block – and it didn’t work. So I walked around the block a second time, and THAT worked.”
Make an agreement with each other that it is OK to ask for and to give a time-out – a cooling-off period when discussions get heated. Part of the deal is that you won’t just let the issue drop, but that you will come back to resume the discussion later when you are both in a more constructive frame of mind.
Delay a complaint. When something is bothering you, practice not saying anything about it for 20 minutes, an hour, or 24 hours. See if the importance and intensity of the complaint changes with time. If you decide the issue is still worth talking about, you will be able to bring it up with your partner in a less emotional state, feeling calmer and better able to use your effective communication tools. You are also learning the valuable skill of sitting with an uncomfortable feeling without having to immediately act on it.
You simply cannot make progress in your relationship unless you get a handle on emotional reactivity. Practice these techniques faithfully, and you will be on the road to the closeness and intimacy you desire.